Life as the sole breadwinner of a family impoverished by drugs

A story told by Nang Khong

I am so fed up with drugs. I don’t even want to hear people speak about them. I say this because my family has been badly impacted by drug addiction.

I am the elder sister of four younger brothers. Three of my brothers have used drugs.

Currently, we have no idea where my first younger brother is. He stole from people and left because he had no way to pay back the debts. My second younger brother has contracted HIV. My third younger brother used drugs, but not in a serious way. So, I sent him and my youngest brother to live in Taunggyi. We were afraid that if they stayed in our community, they would become addicted to drugs too.

My family and I live in a remote village in Hsipaw, northern Shan State. We rely on seasonal farming, like everyone in our community. In the past, when our father was still strong and healthy, our family was doing fine. All our siblings could go to school. But three of my younger brothers gave up on school. They were never interested in studying. They said that even if they finished school, it wouldn’t be any use. I was the only one who finished school. I struggled to support myself through university, and finally I graduated. Our youngest brother is still studying.

I went to university in Mandalay (in a different region). During that time, I didn’t get much chance to go back home and I didn’t know much about what was happening there. My younger brothers were living with our parents, doing seasonal work to get by.

After university I returned home. Two of my younger brothers took up a job transporting cattle into China. That was in 2012–2013 and cattle trading across the border was a really good business. Each trip lasted about 10–20 days, but sometimes up to two months. However, I never saw them bring home the money they earned. I guess they spent it all on drugs. They only came home once all the money was gone. Around that time, my first younger brother married a woman who is older than our mother! I was speechless.

Rural travel Lashio Shan State
Rural travel and transportation in Lashio Township, northern Shan State. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

In my village, almost every household has people living with drug addiction (there are only about five houses without anyone using drugs). In our community drugs are easily and cheaply available. Three tablets cost around 200 MMK [less than 50 US cents]. I learned just how serious my brothers’ addictions were after I returned home from university. They would use all kinds of drugs, including heroin and amphetamines. My parents knew about it, but they couldn’t intervene to stop it.

I feel so desperate for my brothers. I don’t think they wanted to fall victim to drugs, but I guess they could not resist the peer-pressure. I think another reason why young people start using drugs is the bad influence of seeing their family members use them. They’re everywhere in our society. I have seen parents or adults ask their underage family members to buy them cigarettes. This is giving young people a good impression of cigarettes and drugs. Traditionally we think that everything our parents, adults and older people say is true and good. We are taught to abide by and listen to older people, and especially our parents whom we regard as our first teachers. This way of thinking in our society might have contributed to my brothers becoming addicted to drugs.

Initially my brothers were able to sustain their drug use with their earnings. Later, they were no longer willing to work like before. At some point, they stopped working and started stealing to support their drug use.

Our father was also getting old and no longer able to make large amounts of money. So, the responsibility to support our entire household fell on my shoulders. I was working with a local non-governmental organisation in my area, so my income was not that good. But anyway, I had to struggle on to support my family. There was no other choice. My brothers’ situation gradually got worse. They would steal anything – furniture, people’s possessions, including motorbikes and cars. They would even steal motorbikes owned by the police and soldiers.

My brothers didn’t care how much the item was worth, they would exchange it for any amount of money to buy drugs. In many cases, the people they stole from would come to our house and ask us to compensate them for what they had stolen. When that happened, I would be the one who had to apologise, pay them and sometimes beg them not to escalate the issue to the police or local authorities.

I had to sell all my valuable items and belongings, including my smartphone, to pay people back for what my brother had stolen. I would find alternative ways to earn money, like selling groundnuts. Sometimes, I even had to sell my clothes. I borrowed money from friends. I had to beg and promise that I would pay them back when I received my salary at the end of the month. Some of my friends even made a remark that the only job I have not done is prostitution and how fortunate that I did not. They were right. I am lucky that I have managed to find better alternatives to earn the money. Otherwise, my life would be in ruin. Sometimes my brothers asked me for money and when I didn’t have any they would become verbally abusive and violent. At times, the debts left our family with not even enough money to buy rice. Things were very difficult throughout 2013–2016. No matter how much I earned and how hard I worked, the money was never enough.

We felt so embarrassed and humiliated. People would talk badly about our family. They would not trust our family at all.

For example, if one of our neighbours found something was missing, they would accuse my brother and come straight to our house to search for the item.

We don’t know where to seek help or who to rely on. We have to find the way out on our own. No government or organisation will come and help tackle this problem.

We have village leaders and a village headman, but they can barely do anything to tackle the drug dealing and addiction issues. Even when the community has brought up specific cases of drug dealers or drug users, the village leaders could not take any action.

Discarded syringes
Discarded syringes in northern Shan state. Photo by Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN)

There have been some community efforts to help tackle and prevent the use of drugs. My friend used to carry out some community campaigning work, arresting drug users and asking the local authorities and the police to handle the case (for example by sending them to treatment centres). But the police and local authorities said there was nothing they could do, so my friend had to let them go.

The local authorities and the police are only interested in arresting young drug users from rich families; only wealthy parents are able to bribe the police to release their sons/ daughters. We can never expect local authorities and police to proactively arrest drug users or dealers in the Myanmar community. Local authorities and politicians are not interested in finding a way to help tackle the problem and help us. So, who are we going to rely on? We have to rely on ourselves and find a way out on our own.

In 2017, I received news that there was one ethnic armed organisation helping with drug treatment. I heard about this because of my work engaging with different local organisations, most people would not have heard about it. They said that there was a drug treatment centre in Lashio. I had never heard of that place before. It was not a drug-rehabilitation centre, rather a drop-in centre for drug users to get medication. Most people don’t know there is such a facility.

I contacted the centre to send my brother for treatment.

When he arrived, they tested him and found that he had HIV. He needed HIV treatment. We had the option to send him to Thailand for the treatment. But he didn’t have an identification card and the medication was very expensive, so we couldn’t.

We were so desperate. I had no choice but to seek help from one of the youth organisations in Southern Shan. I begged them to accommodate my brother and promised that I would try to pay for all the fees, including for the medication. The organisation was very understanding of my brother’s situation and accepted him. He is still receiving treatment there today.

As for my first younger brother, in 2014 he was arrested and sent to Taung Lay Lone prison in Taunggyi. Since then, we haven’t heard from him. We don’t know if he is dead or alive.

When he was in the prison, we couldn’t visit him because the travel expenses were huge. We did not even have enough money to feed our family, so we could not afford to visit him. Anyway, he had to pay for his own misdeed.

I brought my other two brothers with me to Taunggyi, where I am working now. If I let my brothers stay behind in the village, they would become addicted to drugs. My third youngest brother is helping the organisation I work for. He doesn’t use drugs anymore. As for my youngest brother, we let him stay in the dormitory and go to school. Once, I asked my brother living with HIV if he would like to come back home, he replied, ‘I am sick of seeing those people’. I teased him ‘is it you who is sick of seeing them, or are they the ones who do not want to see you?’

Our house in the village is empty. Drugs tore my family apart. We are all in different locations. Our parents went to stay with our relatives in another area. Only once in a while our parents go back to the village.

The struggles and difficulties caused by drug addiction are still impacting us today. This is such a huge problem, and it is very challenging to tackle. So, for me there is nothing that can be done but to console myself with Dharma [a Buddhist teaching] and tell myself that I am not the only one who has gone through this struggle and these difficulties.

I want to share the struggles of our family so that others might be able to avoid what we have had to go through. I pray and wish that I will not have to go through those same struggles and misery again.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.